It's good to be the King.
One of my most volatile rants recently focused on the lack of coherent plots in many new games. It seems that the adventure and role-playing markets have been inundated with a slew of nonsensical scripts, usually involving a complex and contrived family tree gone wrong, a good dragon, a high tech paramilitary group, and a bad dragon. Then inevitably a young farmer comes along, realizes he's related to one of the dragons, saves the world by destroying it, and along the way meets up with a trusty sidekick named Zeppo or Poofie (which is often a flying monkey/rat/dragon).
For this reason, King's Quest: Mask of Eternity is more to me than just another game, it's the reminder that games haven't always been so . . . silly. It also marks the simultaneous return and coup de grace of a legend in this business, game designer and famed storyteller Roberta Williams. I'll admit right here that I'm a huge fan of the woman, and expected another masterpiece. Frankly, I was little let down.
Those of you familiar with King's Quest will find solace in the fact that the game's strongest elements are the same as ever: a good, natural storyline and compelling puzzles. You take on the role of Connor, a resident of the Kingdom of Daventry. A strange storm has overtaken the land and turned your village-mates into stone. It has also unleashed more than a few monsters (of course). You were spared because you happened to be holding a piece of a sacred Mask, which fell from the sky into your hands right as the tempest hit. Now it's up to you to get to the bottom of things and heal the land.
The biggest difference between Mask of Eternity and others in the heralded King's Quest series is the move from 2D to 3D, and quite a move it is. The game is entirely 3 dimensional, incorporating a real-time 3D world with fully polygonal and articulated characters. This is a far cry from the sprites of yesteryear, and, while the graphic overhaul is much needed, it isn't free of faults.
Mask of Eternity is primarily played as a third-person adventure, though a first-person mode is included (only useful for up-close inspections). While the detail of the characters is excellent, the overall graphics are remarkably dull and uninspired. I ran the game on a pretty high-end machine (PII 333 w/Voodoo2) and still found it sluggish at times.
The move to 3D is further hampered by the fact that you can only see about 20 yards in any direction before it fades to blackness; there are little to no background details (mountain ranges, sky effects, etc.) to flesh out each world. However, the up-close detail is very high. Mouths move to actually match what's being said, textures are believable, and the sheer size of some of the levels is just downright impressive.
The third-person perspective means you have to worry about camera problems. In Mask of Eternity, you control Connor with the keyboard and the camera with the mouse. This allows you total freedom to select different angles to view the adventure. A nice touch, but still not enough to overcome the occasional object obstruction issue.
The gameplay is quite similar to older King's Quest games: explore and solve increasingly complex puzzles to further the storyline. Many of the puzzles are inventory based and lead into each other. You'll have to open one door to find an item required to open a second door, through which lies a third door, only opened by using an item found 20 minutes earlier. This sort of thing gets a bit monotonous, but they mix it up enough with some truly difficult deductive reasoning puzzles so that things stay fresh.
New to the series is real-time combat, which is sadly the weakest part of the game. As you encounter monsters, you just use a simple point-and-click system to whack at them with a weapon, while using mushrooms and other healing items to keep your health meter up. In the meantime, they're whacking at you. All of this whacking really just amounts to boredom (doesn't it always?). You can just tell that the people who made this game weren't familiar with any decent combat engines.
The sound and voice acting is top notch. Sweeping orchestral numbers set the tone for a lengthy adventure, while a well-placed harp solo helps to capture the more serene moments. The voices are straight out of the Renaissance Faire, and this is not a bad thing; it's impressive seeing such proper use of 'ye' and 'thou.' It's just a very authentic sounding game.
Perhaps the best thing about Mask of Eternity is what Roberta herself brings to the game - a plot that flows in a successful fantasy world. You won't find a million ridiculous plot twists or a mess of unexplained facts (What, no cats with megaphones? - Ed.). Roberta Williams still has a knack for telling a good story, and could teach a lesson or two to younger game designers.
Frankly, taking the genre into the third dimension was a nice idea, but it just doesn't make much of a difference. If you like adventure games and the earlier King's Quests, than this one's a good choice. But, those of you looking for a little more oomph in your gaming will tire of the same old gameplay. Good effort, Roberta, but it seems your best days are behind you...